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The natural state of man

gunmed.jpgIn the light (or darkness) of current conflicts, it seems salutary to reflect on what earlier philosophers have said about war. In her forthcoming study, Dr Angela Hobbs has concentrated on Plato, comparing his views with those of Thomas Hobbes: both were brilliant and highly influential thinkers, who also experienced vicious civil wars – Plato the struggle between Athens and Sparta and Hobbes that between English Royalists and Parliamentarians. Here, she sums up her conclusions.

There are two main issues. The first is whether Plato regards war as an inevitable feature of human co-existence. Could there be a human society that avoided war altogether? If so, what would it be like? The second is whether Plato thinks the removal or avoidance of war in toto (as opposed to the avoidance of a particular threat) would in any case be desirable: even if it were possible, might the price be too high? Specifically, can the development of civilized society in Plato’s Republic only take place concurrently with the development of war? Does Plato really think – as scholars have often maintained – that humans can only enjoy a life enriched by the arts and philosophy and certain material luxuries if they are prepared to accept war? If one does have to choose between a peaceful life without philosophy and a war-prone life with it, which life should win? In trying to decide whether Plato thinks that such a choice truly is unavoidable, we must explore his view of the roots of aggressiveness in the human psyche, and ask whether he believes such aggressiveness to be innate, no matter what political and social conditions prevail, or what education and training are offered.

Not a militarist

In contrast to a number of commentators, I believe that a careful scrutiny of the dialogues shows that Plato is decidedly not a militarist. In the Republic the origin of war is said to be ‘the same as that of most evils’, namely acquisitiveness (373e), a point also made bluntly at Phaedo 66c: ‘all wars are made to get money’. The tyrant is condemned for stirring up one war after another, both to make his people feel the need for a strong ruler and to reduce them to poverty and hence powerlessness. It is true that no main character advocates pacifism in the face of hostility, and it is acknowledged that war can be an excellent training-ground, display case and test for certain virtues, most notably courage: the Republic consequently pays considerable attention to the education and rewarding of soldiers. But war itself is consistently deplored. One cannot simply go around starting wars in order to purify the nation’s moral health.

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War – or ‘a community of pigs’?

Initially in the Republic the character of Socrates constructs a simple, classless society living a life of bucolic serenity. The inhabitants possess no arts, sciences or luxuries and, significantly, there is no poverty and no war. One of the interlocutors, however, complains that this is a ‘community of pigs’, and Socrates accordingly introduces both the arts and luxury goods. Such introductions, however, unleash desires for expansion and appropriation of neighbouring territory, and war results. It appears at first glance, therefore, that war and civilization are part of the same process, and that Plato’s position is thus in direct contrast to that of Hobbes, for whom a state of war is the natural state of man, a condition that can only be remedied by civil society and the laws of the sovereign.

A little hope?

Yet this is not the end of the story. If we examine the Republic more closely, we find that Plato suggests ways in which this more luxurious, intellectual society can be purified of the savage desires which prompt aggressive war. This is because bellicose desires are not, Plato believes, innate in the human psyche, but only arise when certain yet more fundamental desires for pleasure and honour become perverted by a corrupt environment and are consequently directed onto the wrong objects. In an ideally just society ruled by beneficent philosophers, Plato argues, such perversion of our innate desires will not take place.

Even a peace-loving state, however, will always remain at risk from attack by neighbouring non-ideal states, and may have to engage in defensive war: the threat of war can only be removed altogether if all states on earth are ruled by philosophers. It is important to be precise here. Plato holds that acquisitive, self-assertive and hence potentially aggressive tendencies will always exist in embodied human nature, and will always be in need of careful channelling. But this potentiality for aggression does not have to be realised, and in a cosmos run by philosophers, will not be realised. In our current imperfect world, of course, it almost certainly will be. The initial apparent contrast between Plato and Hobbes has thus turned out to be deceptive: Plato’s message is that civilization and war only develop together if civilization is already in the wrong hands. Furthermore, it is worth attempting such channelling of the roots of aggression even if one is sceptical about achieving total success. It could still be possible for humans, even in our compromised and radically uncertain world, at any rate to improve our chances of living at peace in a materially and culturally sophisticated society. And this possibility should, I submit, be cause for at least a little hope.

'Plato on War’ is to be published by Oxford University Press in Maieusis (edited by D. Scott; forthcoming 2007)